Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
The Holocaust underscored for the Jewish people—and for a large part of the world as well–the necessity of having your own nation. Deprived of full citizenship rights in many European countries and entirely stripped of human rights once the Nazis came to power, the Jews became ostracized and persecuted throughout Europe. They were branded as outsiders and eventually stomped out by the Nazis like “vermin” even in countries they had inhabited for centuries. One of the greatest ironies of history is that to claim a land and establish a country of their own in 1948—the state of Israel–the Jewish people had to displace another people, the Palestinians, leading to one of the most fierce and insoluble conflicts in modern history.
Nowhere was this conflict more heated than on the West Bank and the Gaza strip, a thin strip of land bordering Egypt and Israel. When Israel won the Six Day War against Egypt in 1967, the Israelis took over control of Gaza, an area already populated by over one million Palestinian Sunni Muslims. Although, after signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian Authority governed the Gaza Strip, Israel maintained control of its airspace, borders (with the exception of the border with Egypt) and waters, monitoring what went in and out of the area. Thus, for all practical purposes, Israel acquired enormous control over the entire economy. Much of the local Palestinian population viewed this control as an occupation by an enemy nation. Encouraged by Hamas and other militant organizations, Palestinian youth launched their own form of protest, or “Intifada” (uprising), throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails and engaging in suicide bombing expeditions against the Israeli forces and, sometimes, against civilians. The Israelis, in turn, launched counterattacks and enacted punitive measures. This conflict led to the death of countless innocent civilians on both sides.
Was my brief summary biased? Although I tried to sound impartial, many would say that I wasn’t. It’s nearly impossible to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict objectively, without seeming to favor one side or another. Impartiality itself tends to be viewed as a bias, given that members of both communities feel that the other side behaves in an immoral and indefensible manner. Given how difficult it is to be fair to both sides, it’s all the more remarkable that the recent independent film directed by Yariv Horowitz, Rock the Casbah (2013), does justice to this thorny subject. The movie manages to capture the complexity of the conflict in Gaza during the First Intifada, in 1989. Although the film is narrated from the perspective of four young Israeli soldiers sent to the Gaza strip to suppress the uprising, it doesn’t dehumanize the Palestinians. It also doesn’t convey the Israeli soldiers as righteous heroes. In fact, the movie’s strength—acknowledged by several film critics, including Jordan Hoffman in film.com and Alissa Simon in Variety—lies in its realism and strong characterizations.
Not surprisingly, not all these soldiers go into this mission with enthusiasm. In Israel, all citizens over the age of 18 are required to serve in the military (with some exemptions, such as for Druze Arabs who are citizens of Israel). Men generally serve three years, women two. Many go willingly and gladly, others can’t wait to get the experience over with and escape alive. In his depiction of the Israeli soldiers, Horowitz captures an entire spectrum of attitudes towards the Israeli-Arab conflict: from the ideologically patriotic stance of the Israeli commander (played by Angel Bonnani); to the ambivalent reaction of the main character Tomer (Yon Tumarkin) who, for the most part, is traumatized by violence; to the hot-headed hatred of Aki (Roy Nik); to the easy-going attitude of their likable leader, Ariel (Yotam Ishay), who tries to calm down his fellow soldiers when they seek vengeance. In fact, Ariel can’t wait to complete the few weeks he has left of military service and go to Amsterdam.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ih9knjg5JgQ]
The plot centers on an initial act of violence, which sparks a greater conflict: a young Israeli soldier is killed by a Palestinian youth who throws a washing machine on him from a rooftop. During the rest of the movie, four of his fellow soldiers are stationed on that roof, trying to prevent further violence and to hunt down the man who killed their friend. This isn’t an easy feat, since the perpetrator’s family and friends try to protect him. In the process of seeking the killer, the Israelis gather up, in a more or less haphazard fashion, all the young Arab males they suspect of being involved in acts of aggression, blindfold them, shove them into a van and send them to a Secret Service prison, guilty or innocent. I found this to be one of the most brutal scenes of the film.
The movie also captures the understandable resentment of the Palestinian family on whose roof the Israeli soldiers are stationed. Although they themselves—a mother, a father and their children—are not directly involved in violence, they refuse to turn in their nephew, the young man who killed the Israeli soldier. Their young son, not understanding what’s happening, wants to play “soldier” games with the Israelis. Caught in the middle—ostracized by their community as “collaborators” and suspected by the Israelis of protecting the enemy—this Palestinian family is stuck in a lose-lose situation that reduces the parents to despair.
Rock the Casbah sustains suspense not only through its strong characterizations, but also through the sparing use of violence. Unlike most American war films I’ve seen, which showcase countless scenes of blood and gore through spectacular special effects, this movie included only two main acts of physical violence: the scene of the killing of the Israeli soldier at the beginning and one at the end. These deaths were so well staged that I felt like I had watched a film of incredible violence.
Above all, to its credit, Rock the Casbah achieves a rare and difficult feat: it describes the polarizing and complex political tension in the Middle East in as realistic and unbiased a manner as possible, neither idealizing nor demonizing either side of this impossible conflict in the Gaza Strip.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory